Archives for the month of: April, 2022

One of the guilty pleasures of working in publishing is that you get out of the habit of paying for books. That’s (partly) why we all have so many of them. (See Free books.) It’s a slight paradox that employees find it harder to get a free e-book than a print copy. If your job involves accessing the company digital archive, you can of course just send a copy of the e-book file or a PDF to your home e-mail, or more discretely download it to a thumb-drive. But copying a file just seems more like a premeditated theft than does “forgetting to bring back” that hardback you took home to read.

This is strange, since for the publisher the cost represented by staff members helping themselves to print books is not nothing, whereas with an e-book it actually is virtually nothing. No doubt management will eventually get around to a policy of encouraging staff’s sticky fingers into the digital realm rather than the physical. Maybe remote working has already encouraged this.

One of the delights of the e-book world is though, that unless you are hung up on reading the latest books, you can get almost anything free somewhere or other on-line (legally, I mean, without indulging in straight theft via pirate sites). The Digital Reader made The Drop-Dead Simple Guide a couple of years ago, but its lessons remain useful. I subscribe to the Kindle Daily Deal, and most of the e-books I do pay for I buy at a discounted price. (Old habits die hard.)

The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), PubWest, and Portland State University’s (PSU) Graduate Program in Book Publishing have released a report outlining the findings from PSU’s student-led research on publishing distribution practices.

The report presents analysis and recommendations to address five important issues facing publishing distribution today, namely:

  • How can the book industry decrease the return rate for books sold into trade channels from an average of 30% to an average of 15% (or less)?
  • As consumer buying habits further migrate from retail to online, what does efficient and cost-effective delivery of print books to readers look like going forward?
  • What needs to be done to make book printing truly carbon neutral by 2050?
  • What’s stopping the industry from embracing POD as the preferred means for printing non-illustrated, black-and-white trade books?
  • Although COVID-19 did not create the book industry’s supply chain problems, it certainly exacerbated them. What shortcomings in the book industry were most exposed due to the pandemic?

Link via Publishers Lunch of 14 April.

Now, it is of course easy to criticize the way book publishing and distribution works. It took us a few centuries to get it down right, and we’ve grown accustomed to its look. We like to show off our books in large piles in shop windows on the date of publication. Everyone, even publishers, can agree that the way things work isn’t ecologically perfect. Getting a whole industry to make a course correction is somewhat harder. As long as people want to get their book-reading materials in a print format, getting the book from the end of a bindery line somewhere or other and into the hands of the customer will remain an expensive requirement. Maybe the beginnings of a solution might be sought in their premise: “As consumer buying habits further migrate from retail to online”. Not of course that Amazon, Bookshop, etc. are about to declare their exit from the bookselling business just because delivery in cardboard cartons in trucks rumbling along our highways is ecologically “expensive”, but there does actually seem to be a little bump in the popularity of bricks-and-mortar bookstores going on, as a result of (or is it just, during?) the pandemic.

You can bet on it that publishers would themselves love to cut the returns rate on their books. It’s crazily inefficient to be forced into a reprint of a book just because one branch of Barnes & Noble sends you an order for fifty more while lots of other B&N branches are overstocked and are about to (but when, oh when?) return hundreds of copies.

They wonder “What’s stopping the industry from embracing POD as the preferred means for printing non-illustrated, black-and-white trade books?” An easy one. Cost. As long as you can make a penny more selling a book in the traditional way, that’s what you’ll do. Trade publishers do use POD in certain situations, but it really comes into its own with more expensive books — technical and academic books for instance — where the original unit cost was already high because of the expensive typesetting and setup costs.

But how much more ecologically pure is getting a book, however printed, from your local bookstore than having it dropped off by your smiling Amazon driver? It costs energy to get the book to the bookshop, as well as to get you there. Presumably trucking books from the bindery to the publisher’s warehouse, and then trucking them again in a differently sorted bulk delivery to bookstores does cost a bit less at a bulk rate than sending one book to you in its own carton, but it is still a cost. I wouldn’t be utterly amazed to find out that it cost less on average to get a book from the Amazon driver than it did to pick it up from the bookshop yourself, but I have no numbers.

Does one has to conclude that ebooks will save the planet? But of course that’s not right either. Electricity is energy too. Maybe someone will come up with a little machine which you can wind up and have print out a copy of your book complete with a cover, which all book lovers will have next to their computer printer. Dream on!

Well of course Kristine Kathryn Rusch has every right to write whatever she wants. And, while, parfit gentil knight that I am, I am always reluctant to enter the ad hominem lists, so too do I.

I’ve got nothing against self publishing, and can’t even see why anyone would. Just let them do their thing and “we” can do ours. Our thing may even involve making a bit of money off self published authors who’ve grown tired of their indie publishing business routines. Ms Rusch’s recent Business Musings piece, which kicks off as a celebration of Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter success, goes on to tell us yet again how stupid traditional publishers are, and how the only way to win at publishing is to take classes offered by Ms Rusch and her husband. This may, for all I know, be excellent advice. You’re not going to find out much about traditional publishing though — but who needs to know that old stuff?.

Sanderson raised a whole lot of money on his Kickstarter campaign: 185,341 backers pledged $41,754,153 to receive his four books plus mystery goodies. Ms Rusch believes that “no matter what the trad pub folk want to believe, this is a game-changer”. As, I suppose, one of the “trad pub folk” myself, do I find myself believing that this is a “game-changer”? I’m not sure I do. Sure, Kickstarter has never had as successful a campaign, and is a relatively new venue for bookselling, but lining up subscribers to your books is something which has been going on for centuries. Clearly other authors are already trying the same approach, and maybe lots of them will succeed. But wasn’t Substack meant to be the game changer too? Well of course at a sort of idiot level nobody could deny that the book publishing game has indeed changed over the past fifty years, and will keep on changing even more.

One of Ms Rusch’s more startling paragraphs reads “A quick search of the publishing category on Kickstarter, sorted for active campaigns, showed me book projects that have funded and brought in (so far) anywhere from $50,000 to $500. The bulk of these are in the $10,000 category per novel . . . which is, roughly, what any new writer can expect from traditional publishing these days”. Any new writer can expect a $10,000 advance? Maybe I do need to sign up for a class!

“People who are trained in traditional publishing think that the sales up front, like a Kickstarter, are the only sales.” Well, Noooh. Who do you think invented the term backlist? She goes on, digging in ever deeper, “But in indie publishing, sales can continue for years“. Really; amazing. And I guess we’ve been wasting all that unsold inventory after a year — why did nobody tell us before that there were people out there who might buy an older book? Isn’t it wonderful that we dummies in traditional publishing have self publishers to teach us our business?

Now I know we trad pub folk are slow off the mark, but is it utterly impossible for a traditionally published book to be promoted through a Kickstarter campaign sort of along Sandersonian lines? I don’t know, and don’t plan to research whether Kickstarter refuses to deal with anyone other than an individual, or some such thing, but I would bet that some smart trad pub guy was working out how to get this done. The only difference in a self publisher’s sales efforts and a traditional publisher’s, is that the self publisher is dealing with books they themselves wrote, therefore however prolific they may be, a fairly manageable and coherent list. The traditional publisher deals with books by hundreds of different authors, and we have discovered that directing our efforts into the channel of greatest potential tends to yield the greatest benefit. Could we wring an extra couple of hundred sales out of this or that book: maybe, but maybe not. You have to balance the effort against the potential reward, and this means some old books won’t be being pushed. When the author is the one pushing, there’s no debate. Push we will: and from time to time the results will prove astonishing. Which is great. But which doesn’t mean traditional publishers don’t know what they are doing. And especially doesn’t mean that trad pub folk are out to get authors.

Will we end up working from home for ever? In some businesses, including publishing, the answer could well be yes, or at least yes in part. In February The Society for Scholarly Publishing conducted a survey which yielded 273 responses, and they blog about the results here.

Many publishing companies have announced continued delays in their previously announced reopening schedule, though most are now “allowing” staff to come in if they want to, though such attendance in the office often has to be preplanned. Publishing has done pretty well during the pandemic, and when I think back fifty years this represents a miraculous change. Last century we might just have managed to get a few books published without getting together, but everything was so physical back then that it would look almost impossible. Start with the manuscript: it would have to be wrapped up in brown paper and string and mailed back and forth. It itself would have been written bang by bang by tinkle by bang on a typewriter, or even more physically by hand. After many mailings and rewrappings it would have to be mailed to the printer, who would have been communicating for ages with the customer by a vast series of letters between production department and estimator, sales rep, customer service rep and so on. Of course there would also be all the letters which would have had to have been mailed between editors, production people, designers, copyeditors and so on. Telephones did exist it’s true, but still had a bit of an emergency-use-only aura about them. Proofs would have to be mailed here and there too. All this corresponding had to go on in any case, but when lots of the participants were all in the same building it could be done at a rate which, while it may seem syrupy-slow to modern workers, was fast enough to get a book out in about a year. Spreading everyone out would have doubled or tripled the time needed to get a book through the publishing machine. You can see at once how replacing each brown-paper parcel with a file transfer, and each letter with an email enables a publisher to keep churning out books without ever colleagues seeing one another except over Zoom. It’s all worked miraculously well.

The problem, because of course there are problems, is with new employees. If you’ve dealt with Jane and Bob on lots of books in the past, you can flip over to virtual contact with ease. But if you’re the new employee, how are you meant to know what sort of teasing Bob’ll tolerate, or how formally Jane likes to be addressed? Or even what it is you are meant to do at this point in the process at all? We used to pick up that sort of stuff effortlessly by seeing others do it over and over again. One hears of interns who’ve spent their months of “work experience” without ever having experienced working in the office at all, nor having met their “colleagues” other than on the other side of a keyboard. Maybe we will eventually evolve the skill of learning how to be members of a team without ever meeting the team in the flesh. But at the moment gears are grinding, and young recruits to the industry are suffering.

No doubt we’ll all end up more or less hybrid: some time in the office, some time at home, or wherever. This may work out well by reducing the bunkering tendency between departments and opening up the office to novel interactions. There does seem to be a general move to reduce the amount of office space that companies rent — the other day I heard of one City company which had announced a reduction of a third in their office space. The real estate business must be looking at hard times ahead. In the meantime books seem to be continuing to do fine.

See also Re-reopening.

This color list comes from A Book on Heraldry by John Guillim (1566-1621) at the Folger Library and is discussed in a Collation post.

Caption: List of colors for limning in Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 47v. Blewes: Vltra marine, Blewe byce, Smalte, Litmose, Inde blewe, English Inde, florye
Greenes: Severe greene, Greene byce, Verditer, Verdigrece, Sape greene, flowrdeluce greene
Yellowes: Masticot, Orpiment, Generall, Saffron, Berry yellow, Oker de Rowse, or Spanish ocker
Reddes: Vermilion, Redleade, Synaper lake, Roset, Synaper Toppes
Sangwines: Sanguis Draconis, Turnsole
Brownes: Spanish browne, Bole Armoriak, Oker burnte
Whites: Ceruse white, White leade, Spanish white, Chalke
[Blacks]: Lampblacke, Smythes Cole, Cherry stone, Blacke Chalke

Here’s the recipe for flowrdeluce (fleur de lis: iris) greene:

Gather your fflorredeluces ffortnight before mydsummer & havinge
a faire glasse in redynesse gather your flowres when the
deawe is of them, & that the svnne hath somwhat bleached
Then take the blewe leaves & purple leaves & nippe
it from the stalke, takinge no parte of the flowre, but
only of the fairest of the blewe & of the purple. Let your
glasse be wyde mowthed, & put your fflowres therinto
Lett your fflowres be full blown before you gather them
gatheringe asmany as you can get, for many of them make
but a little Color. You must stoppe your glasse contynually very
close settinge it in a shadowe place, lest the force of the
Sune drye vp the moisture therof. And so keepinge them
fast stopped let them consvme & rotte tyll they become water
& the liquor a darke greene. Then strayne it through in lynen

So off you go a-gathering. If you’ve collected your Folium too, you’ve now got blue and green. You’ve got plenty of warning — mark your calendar for two weeks before midsummer, and off you go a-gathering. If you’ve collected your Folium too, you’ve now got blue and green.

Vulture‘s piece is linked to as Why Book Translators Are Fighting for More Credit while it is trailered by LitHub as the more aggressive “Why are publishers so reluctant to credit translators?” Neither headline really nails it. The actual headline at Vulture is better than either alternative “What’s So Hard About Crediting Translators?”

At a sort of idiot level it’s pretty straightforward issue: you don’t tend to buy a translation of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu because it was translated by this or that translator: you buy it because Proust wrote it.* And it’s not just translations that can contain significant collaboration on the part of silent partners. Nobody thinks it odd that Maxwell Perkins isn’t credited on the cover of Of Time and the River. The book is handsomely dedicated to him, and nobody seems to think that’s not enough. One assumes Ezra Pound’s input on The Wasteland is in fact adequately recorded, or he might have been expected to have remarked on it. To some extent you might argue that if you were paid for your input then that ought to be enough. If you’re after immortality, translating foreign works is probably not the royal road to success.

Still, there doesn’t really seem any justification for suppressing the identity of a translator — though of course we will probably remain ignorant of the reasons for most such silences. Maybe publisher and translator struck a deal which traded fee for credit; or maybe they quarreled; or maybe the translator insisted on not being mentioned; or maybe the publisher simply forgot — who’d know? My favorite translation of War and Peace is the three-volume J. M. Dent Everyman’s edition which carries up front a publishers’ note which refers to it as “the anonymous translation of 1886”. (Favorite mainly because it’s issued in three manageable volumes; NOT because it translates the characters’ names into English along with the rest of the text. I’ve learned to hear Andrei when I read Andrew and so on! Everything else in Mr or Ms Anonymous’ Tolstoy translation is excellent however, at least as far as I’m capable of judging.)

I do think it probably makes a difference what the translator’s contract with the publisher actually says. If the translator signs a contract for a translation of this or that classic, often-translated work, the book can perhaps almost have the status of a new original work, and might attract a royalty for the translator — especially if the original work is in the public domain (i.e., basically, if the author died at least 70 years ago). If you had done a translation of Yevgeny Onegin, you might legitimately demand a royalty, because any translation of such an untranslatable masterpiece must almost by definition be a new work of art. If you sat with the author and together “Englished” their work, does that merit more credit than if you just locked yourself away in a garret and came up with your version? Does it make any difference if you translated the book from a third language? Should the intermediate translator be mentioned?

I think that if the contract is between you and the publisher, you’re likely to be getting credit on title page and cover. If you were hired on a freelance basis to translate a book, credit will be less likely to appear on the front cover unless you insisted upfront on this contract clause — and insisting might end up jeopardizing your entire involvement. (Though I find it hard to think of a reason why a publisher would feel strongly enough about the issue to insist that the translator remain anonymous.) If you just work in the publishing house and your job includes translating stuff — i.e. the translation is effectively a work made for hire — you are pretty unlikely to see your name in any association with the published work.

There are just some boring physical constraints on a publisher’s willingness to add a translator credit on the front cover of a book — it takes up room, and sometimes you can’t reasonably shoehorn in another line of text. People, even publishers, get wedded to a particular vision/design for a book, and if adding in the name of the translator means the design has to be rejigged, there will be resistance. But everyone can agree, can’t they, that, all things being equal, the translator’s name ought to appear on the title page, and ideally on the cover, and at a very minimum on the imprints page? Probably not on the spine, though if it was a very famous translation, say Nabokov’s Yevgeny Onegin, this too might be done.

See also Translation — the credit.


* There may be a hint here at another relevant issue. If there are several available translations of the same work, then the identity of the translator may be a consideration when deciding which one to read. If however we are talking about say a new German novel, freshly translated into English and rushed into print, nobody can have any preference among translators — whoever did it did it.

Seems to me this may be taking things a bit too far. Topping & Company, a bookshop I visited recently in Edinburgh, sells all its hardback books with a plastic jacket protector in place. Turns out they have stores in Ely, Bath, and St Andrews, where one assumes the same protective policy is pursued. This must cost them quite a lot, so they have to be strong adherents of the collector mentality, whereby the value of an old book is determined by its physical condition as much as by its content. They also sell old books: I noticed a first edition Shuggie Bain for £385 — including of course a well-protected jacket. The Edinburgh branch is certainly a very pleasant and good bookstore. Maybe this over-the-top care and attention is evidence of a more fundamental care and attention.

In America we see these plastic jacket protectors in our libraries as part of the Brodarting process. I dare say British public libraries use the same technology.

In one way nobody cares whether a book is the number one bestseller or not. If you enjoy it, you enjoy it. If you hate it, no amount of being told others loved it is going to make any difference. In so far as you were induced to buy the thing because you were told it was a bestseller — well, you may have a beef, but really, is that a wise way to chose your reading material?

However it does come as a bit of a shock to have one’s most cynical suspicions confirmed by a W. H. Smith whistleblower. As iNews tells it, bestseller status is available for sale: “The practice has come to light after a former WH Smith employee alleged that when he worked at the retailer, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.” (Link via Nate Hoffelder’s Weekly News Update.)

As the piece tells us, reliable information about book sales is provided by Nielsen’s BookScan, which collects point-of-sale data from retailers. (However their information doesn’t include sales of books published by indie publishers, and self-publishers.) There is of course a remote possibility that the whistleblower’s not telling the truth; disgruntled ex-employees do exist. But his story is confirmed by James Daunt”s statement that he ended this very practice when he took charge of Waterstones.

So bear in mind that a placard in a bookshop claiming that something is a bestseller may be no more than the expression of a publisher’s wish that this should be so. But also consider whether that, true or false, this would be a sound reason to buy in any case.

Jane Friedman passes on this piece by Adam Rosen giving reasons why authors should consider a university press for their next book.

Of course, if you want to get a university press to accept your book for publication it has to be the sort of book a university press would/could publish. A contender for the number one slot in the NY Times fiction bestseller list might not be the ideal project, but a non-fiction book directed at the general reading public could work. Your basic choice is between the trade house’s superior ability to fill the sales channels with product, and the university press’ ability to direct slightly more personal attention at the book. Going for the big prize with a trade house carries the risk that, if you fail to hit the target, your book may slip into rapid oblivion, whereas a university press can keep on keeping on for years. I remember we used often to sign up older books which trade publishers were going to put out of print because they could no longer sell 4,000 copies a year — their minimum at that time for viability. A book that might sell 4,000 at all was a great prospect to a university press!

Of course print-on-demand has created the possibility of changing this balance, but although trade publishers do do books by print-on-demand, they also continue to put books out of print. For example Random House appear recently have begun winding up their long-term relationship with Robert Penn Warren, many of whose works may now be obtained from Louisiana State University Press.

William Blake was an original in all things, and his printing technique was no exception. He incorporated the text and the illustrations into a single copper plate, whereas anyone else would separate the two. For each page he’d create a copper plate, normally used for engraving, drawing everything in reverse, and stopping the printing image with varnish. Then he’d bathe the plate in an acid solution to remove everything but the parts to be printed, down to a shallow depth. Each plate was etched in two stages. After the first bite the mordant was discarded and the text and design were checked for any underbiting, which would risk damage to the edges of the raised printing image. Stop-out varnish would be applied to any vulnerable areas and the plate bitten again. He’d then print the page letterpress, from the carefully inked raised images. In following this method he was essentially reproducing the process used for the pre-Gutenberg block book. Blake’s process is described at William Blake Prints where they also tell how we were able to reconstruct the procedure from the chance survival of a single partial plate.

Blake had served a seven-year apprenticeship as an engraver starting when he was fourteen, and then made his living from this trade, where most of his work would be aimed at the production of intaglio plates.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. (Video from The British Library.)

Blake owned a Starwheel rolling press, and printed his works at home. The colors would be applied later with water color and a paintbrush. Not a methodology suiting itself to long runs but as he was pretty much ignored during his life time, not inappropriate.